Beck is a life coach for writers. Unlike coaches who work on a writer’s words, Beck works on the writer.
Based in San Anselmo in California’s Marin County, Beck coaches primarily by phone, talking clients around the world through their goals, fears, schedules and challenges once a week or more, depending on the service they sign up for.
After earning an MFA in creative writing, Beck moved through a series of writing-related odd jobs, including a stint working one-on-one with at-risk youth she liked so much it prompted her to get certified as a life coach. Afterwards, because of her background, she gravitated to working with writers.
Now in her fourth year of coaching, Beck maintains a blog called The Relaxed Writer, recently launched a five-week e-course on productivity called Making More Time to Write, and expects to finish an e-book on creating a “satisfying, productive writer’s life” later this spring. More information on her practice is available on her website, Coach Marla. She’s also on Twitter and Facebook.
I talked Beck recently about what a life coach does, what obstacles writers deal with and how they can overcome those stumbling blocks – with or without outside help. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What kinds of writers do you work with?
Professional freelancers or folks who want to make time to pursue a creative project like a book or put in place a marketing system. I’ve worked with writers who have day jobs and need to create more time or structure for pursuing a writing project. As you know, without some intention it’s easy to postpone finishing a novel. Another type of writer I work with is the established freelancer who wants to think through what their direction is, re-conceive their platform or define their niche.
Exactly how do you work?
I work by phone with folks one on one. Depending on the type of coaching, we set weekly or biweekly sessions. This gives them an opportunity to set goals and talk about challenges that come up between sessions. When someone first signs on, I give them assessments and questionnaires to help them understand what they want to achieve, what’s in their way and what they need to put in place to get there. It’s an opportunity to reflect on their writing life to date and think through areas that are working or not working. For many writers that’s a unique opportunity. Imagine sitting and talking to someone about your history and goals.
That sounds like the performance assessments employees and managers do at big companies.
Absolutely. And it ties into a big theme in the tools and strategies I try to instill in writers to become your own manger. It can be hard to remember to shift from role to role but it’s very important.
What happens in the actual coaching?
I have a process I use to guide people through, but the client also brings their own agenda to our work. One of the first things a client needs to do is focus. They need to suss out, ‘Is this the right project for me?’ because sometimes a project that’s hard to get going on or stay with isn’t the best one. The real learning and juicy stuff happens when they determine goals for the week and report back what’s happened. Part of what people take away from this work is accomplishing projects or reprioritizing their time. But they also become empowered to understand their own rhythms, when their best writing times is, get to know their own cycles or see something as a message that they need a break.
Like when I start playing computer solitaire, I know it’s a sign I need a mental break.
That’s a perfect example. There’s a real difference in managing your time or managing resistance to work from the outside in by using a calendar or task management system. It becomes more sustainable when you work from the inside out, by looking at your mindset or observing your energy.
How long do you typically work with someone?
It varies from person to person. Generally, people have to stay with the work at least three months to have something they can use long term. An average might be six to nine months. I’ve had clients stay with me as long as two or two and a half years.
Why so long?
One client was finishing a novel manuscript and taking on a professional upper-management job at the same time so we worked through some life/work balance issues. Other folks have kept me on for other reasons. Coaches can play lots of roles: brainstorming partner, accountability partner, advisor, sounding board. One great thing that happens in a mature coaching partnership is you transition into that sounding board role. People have found it useful to keep me on board to help them choose a project or work through creative challenges.
Apart from the logistics, what else should writers know about working with a life coach?
Sometimes when people come to this work, there’s a very important need or outcome they want from the process, like ‘I want to finish my manuscript.’ It’s exciting to help people stay with the project and complete that. But there’s so much more people take from the process, such as a sense of empowerment or self knowledge.
What does this kind of coaching cost?
Anywhere from $250 to $500 or more a month and that varies from coach to coach. It depends on the support and the experience of the coach. If you’re buying an hour appointment you might also get access to the coach between sessions by phone or email. Some coaches might review manuscripts. In my practice, I put together forms that people can use to summarize our conversations.
What are some road blocks writers come to you for help with?
One is a lack of believing it’s possible. You can’t get far in a creative writing project if you don’t believe there’s intrinsic value in it. Or someone who’s overwhelmed by time commitments not believing it’s possible to shift it to suit them and honor their own entire life, not just their professional or family obligations. That’s on top of the usuals: fear, self doubt and perfectionism.
Those are things I hear writers talk about, fear they’re not good enough.
One of the main topics in my new e-book is dealing with obstacles that come from within. There’s a difference between roadblocks that come from our external environment and ones that come from within. One key to working with any of the internal ones is your response to them when they arise. You have to expect them, almost as if they’re a guest. Some writers get tripped up by fear and it can lead to self doubt. But by not being afraid when fear comes, you have your tools ready to respond. One thing that happens with fear is we might be isolated within ourselves; reconnecting to the community can help us get out of that.
Perfectionism is also a problem for a lot of writers. How do you suggest dealing with it?
It’s a problem with perspective and the solution is to shift the perspective. What I see often is people get confused about what point they are in the writing process. They expect the first draft of a book to be perfect when the goal is really just to get it written down. They need to shift to realizing it’s just one piece of their writing career. Even if it’s a novel, think of it as the first of several, to shift from the micro to the bigger picture.
That sounds like me when I finishing a story – those last couple paragraphs feel the most important things I’ll ever write, so they take forever. I need to remind myself it’s more important just to finish and since I’ll probably have rewriting to do anyway I can make them better then.
Yes and that ties back to what we were talking about as showing up as your own project manager.
If someone can’t afford a life coach, how could they help themselves?
One way is to read my blog on productivity and mindset. I know some writers aren’t in the position to afford one-on one-coaching, so I’m also setting up a writing group on a conference call. It’s something I’m just adding to my practice. A group of six to eight writers is what I would be comfortable with. I’ve also launched an e-course on making time to write.
What else can writers do on their own?
Find a way to structure some accountability into your writing life, whether it’s with a group or another friend. It can be easy to be isolated. By comparing notes and networking you can learn a lot. Also, do your job but watch yourself work. Keep a mindfulness so you notice when you’ve been on Facebook too long. Or that you’re doing the same kinds of assignments and not stretching further. That comes easier with a coach, but if you’re focused on reflecting on it you can do it for yourself too.
Any parting thoughts?
I’d like to leave people with the motivation to do it. You only get one life. One thing I didn’t mention before, I’m a Hodgkin’s disease survivor. I had it twice in my 20s. I live as intentionally as I can. I got the opportunity to be aware that life is short, and you have to take the opportunity to go for it.